On Body and Soul (2017)

Two deers in a snow-speckled forest punctuate awkward social scenes at a bloody Budapest abattoir to create a memorable film with a dreamy, unconventional “two people meant for each other” narrative.

On Body and SoulHungary
4*

Director:
Ildikó Enyedi
Screenwriter:
Ildikó Enyedi
Director of Photography:
Máté Herbai

Original title: Testről és Lélekről

Running time: 115 minutes

In the dead of winter, deep in a snow-speckled forest, a stag moves closer to place its chin ever so gently on the back of a wide-eyed doe. Light snowfall covers their fur. This peaceful, luminous scene – intimate despite the frigid temperatures – is like something out of a dream. Back in reality, it is summer in Budapest, where Endre, a middle-aged financial director at an abattoir, meets the porcelain-faced, blonde-haired Maria, the young new quality inspector who is all but expressionless except for a slight deer-caught-in-the-headlights look.

These two very different milieux alternate back and forth for a while until we realise they not only complement each other but are in fact directly connected: Every night, both Endre and Maria, who have never met before, have exactly the same dream in which the former is the stag and the latter is the doe. But unsurprisingly for a film from Hungary, a country whose film industry has specialised in works vibrating with a kind of magical realism for a number of years, this revelation does not come as a particular shock to either of them, although fortunately the flurry of magic slowly draws them together. Not coincidentally, all of this plays out against a story doing the rounds at the abattoir of two people who used “mating powder” meant for the cows and suffered some serious(ly hilarious) side effects.

The scenes at the abattoir are very graphic, and while we do not see the actual killing of the animals, we do see how the cows are decapitated with blood spurting forth in all directions. Logically, there is an obvious fear that the same will eventually befall the two deers, but director Ildikó Enyedi, who crafted the film based on her own screenplay, deftly ties the characters’ dreams and reality together in ways that make a great deal of sense while showing us both the brutality of falling in love and the serenity of being in love.

On Body and Soul drops hints along the way to give rough sketches of its two central characters but does not flesh either of them out in any great detail. This is the right approach, given that the film exists on a level that is more spiritual than physical, and any prolonged explanation or back story would have made Endre and Maria too heavy. It is never explained why Endre has a crippled left arm or how Maria has come to recoil from any physical contact, but it small (albeit, perhaps intentionally so, never perfect) ways, they complement each other.

By the time the two have grown closer together and Maria has decided it might be a good idea to get used to being touched, we get an absolutely stunning moment of beauty and subtlety that encapsulates the atmosphere of the film as a whole: After creepily staring at couples making out in the park, she lies down and feels the gentle sting of the blades of grass on her exposed skin. She falls asleep, only to be awoken by the park’s sprinkler system. But when she raises her head, she is smiling, aware that this is the first time she has had this experience, and the water that runs down her cheeks looks like tears of joy.

Another shot that stands is one that shows the stag running at full speed while the camera does a lateral tracking shot at the same steady pace. Like something out of a dream, giving the impression of happening for real but showing us something we could never have witnessed without film, this shot is the definition of pure cinema.

While the scenes with the deers are breathtakingly peaceful and gorgeous to look at, grisly moments captured early on at the abattoir will likely be upsetting to many viewers, in particular those who are non-carnivores by choice. Maria’s inscrutable demeanour, which at turns renders her asociality completely farcical, becomes more relatable during the comical scenes with her pediatrist (yes, you read that right). At the same time, Endre’s acceptance of her quirkiness is neither hands-off nor contrived, and by the time we reach the climax we want the two of them to be together so much that some of the more ridiculous developments become wholly palatable.

On Body and Soul is definitely a very different kind of love story, but for those willing to look past the blood and snow and see the two extremes join together in the middle, this is a delightful film whose unexpected humour will stay with you for days.

Viewed at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival.

With a Little Patience (2007)

With its focus on the point of view of a single character, With a Little Patience anticipates the thematic and visual concerns of its director’s feature film début by eight years.

with-a-little-patience-turelemHungary
4.5*

Director:
László Nemes

Screenwriters:
László Nemes

Timea Varkonyi
Director of Photography:
Mátyás Erdély

Running time: 11 minutes

Original title: Türelem

László Nemes should be the only director ever allowed to tell stories of the Holocaust. Just like his feature film début, Son of Saul, released in 2015, his first short film shot in 35mm, With a Little Patience, made eight years earlier, is remarkably intense in its focus on a single character within the context of Jewish extermination during the Second World War. In this wordless, 11-minute film consisting of a single take, an anonymous office worker first appears to us when she emerges from soft focus, just as Saul Kaminski does in the opening seconds of Son of Saul.

An epigraph taken from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, specifically the poem’s curtain-raising “Burial of the Dead” section, figures on a black screen even before the first image: “I could not / Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing, / Looking into the heart of light, the silence. / Öd’ und leer das Meer.” These lines perfectly frame the misery and desperation that follow shortly afterwards.

Although the office worker appears in the frame almost immediately when the film opens, the first object that is in focus is the object handed to her by an unknown individual: a brooch. It takes some time before we come to realise the significance of this piece of jewellery, and in the interim, the silence takes on an air of mystery and tension that finally breaks with tremendous force, even from far away, in the closing moments.

As the narrative unspools, a nagging sense of misfortune hangs in the air, created in large part by the dark interior where most of the film is set. The setting is nondescript. The space is clearly an office of some sort, but the anonymous woman whom we follow for most of the film does not speak to anyone, and the only words spoken to her are a whisper, their meaning unknown to us. Furthermore, as Nemes would do again in Son of Saul, the focus is so shallow that the actions of all except this woman are presented as nebulous blurs of movement.

Very little happens, although it is obvious the woman is hiding something, and all along, we wonder, “Where did this brooch come from, and why is she clearly not supposed to have it?”

It is only at the very end – when the camera’s perspective changes, and in an unfortunate moment of directorial timidity, we leave the confines of the main character as the focus is racked to show events much farther away – that we grasp the spatio-temporal context of the film: a death camp somewhere on Nazi-occupied territory during the Second World War. The brooch is one of the pieces of jewellery that belonged to a Jewish prisoner, and this woman dressed in white, calmly and expressionlessly doing clerical work amid the grotesque carnage occurring just offscreen, is materially benefitting in her own small way from the subjugation, incarceration and liquidation of the Jews.

But this is but one interpretation.

While some may whimsically use the title to describe the lack of any robust dramatic development during the first two-thirds, this considerable part of the film actually works to heighten the impact of the final revelation on the viewer. By the time the chilling closing minutes roll around, the sudden shift in tone produces a visceral kick to the gut.

In With a Little Patience, Nemes offers a clear vision of his cinematic principles and a firm foundation on which he would ultimately go on to build the modern-day masterpiece that is Son of Saul. Tipping his hat to masters of the art form that include Andrei Tarkovsky and Béla Tarr, Nemes uses a carefully choreographed single take to exquisite effect and proves his is a voice that will reverberate through the industry in the years to come.

White God (2014)

The (under)dogs will not take abuse lying down; expect them to fight back with a vengeance in this gorgeous film from Hungary’s Kornél Mundruczó.

white-godHungary
4*

Director:
Kornél Mundruczó 

Screenwriters:
Kornél Mundruczó

Viktória Petrányi
Kata Wéber
Director of Photography:
Marcell Rév

Running time: 120 minutes

Original title: Fehér isten

White God, a Hungarian film about a crossbreed dog thrown out on the street after new laws come into force banning its kind, the underworld of dog fighting he is exposed to and ultimately the revenge he exacts, is both gory and glorious, with scenes of great poignancy admirably offsetting some brutal violence.

The film is for those who like dogs but perhaps not for those who like them too much: A central part of the narrative involves the dog, named Hagen, being enslaved, drugged, physically and psychologically abused, and made to fight against other dogs. The scene of two dogs fighting, and the half-dead, soon-to-be carcasses of the hounds littered around the site, may be too tough for some to take. However, despite the bloodbath that concludes the film, it is at heart a story about a dog whose emotional development is immediately recognisable. For days after seeing the film, you will likely find yourself walking the street, noticing a dog and acknowledging it as more than just a furry pet. Director Kornél Mundruczó deserves tremendous acclaim for his ability to portray animals with astonishing humanity.

The film opens with what at first seems to be a dream sequence: Budapest has come to a standstill, and all we see is a single girl on her bicycle driving through the capital’s desolate streets. Suddenly, a large group of rabid dogs turn a corner and chase her down. She rides her bike faster and faster, but they are gaining on her.

Some could easily argue that this opening scene, repeated later in the film, when we realise it is all too real, is superfluous, but it does set a mood of uneasiness for us, as the viewer is thrown into the deep end while getting the strong flavour of contrasts in the film: Beautiful tracking shots accompany this otherwise startling event, and for much of the rest of the film we will find ourselves riveted by the images while often being repulsed by the actions of both people and dogs.

We meet the girl from the opening scene just after the title appears onscreen. The title is never explained, although it probably refers both to Samuel Fuller’s White Dog, in which a dog trained to attack black people undergoes retraining, with ambiguous results, and to the status of the white man in the life of the Hungarian dog, and more generally to the cachet the race has across Europe.

The girl’s name is Lili, and when her mother and stepfather go on holiday to Australia, she has to stay with her unwilling father, Daniél. But Daniél dislikes the dog she has brought with her, Hagen, and has no problem throwing it out on the street when he gets a warning from the authorities that all crossbreeds now have to be put down. This is where the narrative splits into two strands, as we follow the stories of Hagen and Lili, both trying to cope in new worlds they know very little about: life on the street, and life as a teenager, respectively.

Lili’s story is almost entirely forgettable and doesn’t offer much of interest. This is the most serious misstep of the production, as Mundruczó easily could have spared us this rather monotonous view of life as a teenager. Her father, Daniél, also displays a limited range of emotions, and his character has exasperatingly little depth. By contrast, every scene with Hagen contains either a thrill, a shock or a moment of pathos, the latter most often occurring during the dog’s interaction with other dogs, in particular a rough-coated Jack Russell terrier that memorably shares a couch with Hagen.

These scenes are simply phenomenal, because they offer us a glimpse of Mundruczó’s ability to tell a story and to move us with amazing tenderness, without using any words. Animal trainer Teresa Ann Miller deserves great kudos for her work to assure our immediate recognition of traits like friendship, kindness, goodwill and even intimacy in these animals.

Towards the end, unfortunately, there are some jumps in the narrative that don’t make much sense, in particular Lili’s seemingly clairvoyant ability to know where to go look for her dog in downtown Budapest.

The uprising of the crossbreed canines should serve as a wakeup call to those in Europe, and perhaps around the world, that the downtrodden will not go quietly into the night. They may be smaller in size, and they may not conform to traditional categories, but if they are mistreated, they will eventually fight back, and those who have power today should take note. This is a powerful message for the people of the Continent who believe their way of life is threatened by those who are different from them and that the minorities need to be kept underfoot, because there is no telling how violent the reactions will be.

Son of Saul (2015)

Tight focus, searing details and a wholly original approach combine to produce one of most powerful Holocaust films of all time in this début feature film of László Nemes.

son-of-saul-fiaHungary
4.5*

Director:
László Nemes 
Screenwriters:
László Nemes 
Clara Royer

Director of Photography:
Mátyás Erdély

Running time: 105 minutes

Original title: Saul fia

The world didn’t know it needed another Holocaust drama until Son of Saul (Saul fia) came along. Focused on one lone protagonist – the titular Saul (Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian – for its running time by blocking out almost everything around him through shallow focus and an aspect ratio that is close to a square, the film is 105 minutes of pure immersion in the tension that pervades a concentration camp (press materials state it is Auschwitz, but this is not evident to the outsider) towards the end of the Second World War.

The opening is breathtaking, as Saul approaches us in a blurred shot of a forest landscape until his face appears in a sharp close-up. For the next few minutes, we follow him, swinging from the front to the back, over his shoulders, as a train arrives, and the latest group of Jewish prisoners offload their belongings and make their way into the camp. His face does not betray a single emotion. However long he has been here, he has been hardened by his experience, and he goes about a range of unthinkable duties with the robotic dedication of a drone. And yet, there are signs that underneath the surface, he is fully aware of the savagery all around him.

In one of the film’s first scenes, we see a group of prisoners, likely the ones who arrived in the opening scene, led to the showers. Saul, wearing a coat with giant red X on the back, which means he belongs to the exclusive Sonderkommando burdened with cleaning the gas chambers after executions have taken place, among other ghastly chores, stands to one side. We see the doors closing, and soon the screaming starts. The screams become shrieks, and the shrieks turn to wails, before silence announces death. When the doors open, the bodies are dragged outside, and the victims’ clothes, neatly hung in the cloakroom, are ransacked for anything that glitters. Saul covers his nose and mouth with a thin piece of cloth to ward off the stench of the deceased.

But there is a slight groaning among the heap of corpses, and it belongs to a young boy. The doctor examines him, listens to his wheezing chest, and then grabs his head, closes his nasal passages and puts a hand over his mouth. Within seconds, the boy stops breathing. Saul sees all of this, and inside him something breaks. He desperately looks for any identification among the pile of clothes, but he finds none. Later, he asks the doctor not to dispose of the body after the autopsy.

Despite Saul’s lack of visible emotion, we learn over time that the boy is his son, or that he thinks the boy is his son. This piece of information seems utterly far-fetched, not only because the boy was serendipitously the only survivor from the group but also because the group of prisoners did not even come from Hungary. Nonetheless, Saul is determined that the boy be given a proper Jewish burial, and he spends the rest of the film trying to track down a rabbi who would say Kaddish, a prayer in honour of the dead.

Many of the scenes consist of a single take, or what feels like a single take. It bears mentioning at this point that this is director László Nemes’s début feature – a fact that seems astounding, given the obvious challenges of choreographing the actors as well as the camera as they move through a variety of spaces. Nemes’s experience with film does include, however, a stint as assistant director on The Man from London (A londoni férfi) by Béla Tarr, famous for his use of long takes.

This approach to his story is tremendously effective, and even though some of the takes include long stretches without dialogue, there is not a single dull moment in the entire film. On the contrary, the viewer becomes more and more tense as the story continues to develop. Nemes accomplishes this task by focusing on the details without showing them explicitly. The tight locus that is Saul is the point from which we glimpse the chaos around him, and while there are no real establishing shots anywhere in the film, it is clear this is hell on earth.

From piles of ash (cremated bodies) being shovelled into a lake to prisoners lining up next to a pit to be shot point-blank the one after the other, the things we see here – sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly – are gruesome and will haunt many a viewer. And yet, the filmmaker never goes for spectacle, because the brief events here are always extensions of the horror that is all around Saul, and by their presence they help us to comprehend what it is from which he seeks to escape.

Son of Saul is a tour de force like few others. It keeps the viewer guessing, not only about the trajectory but about the nature of the chaos taking place in front of our very eyes, and is without question a Holocaust film that ranks among the very best ever made.

Viewed at the 2015 San Sebastián International Film Festival

Taxidermia (2006)

Hungary

2.5*
Director:
György Pálfi
Screenwriters:
Zsófia Ruttkay,
György Pálfi
Director of Photography:
Gergely Pohárnok

Running time: 91 minutes

How seriously can we take a film in whose first scene a character makes love to a candle and shoots fire out of his penis?

Director György Pálfi has produced a film that doesn’t look half bad but he has put all his eggs in one basket and forgot to fashion a proper story. There are many random episodes of obscenity and downright senselessness, but the film also contains moments that bring to mind a director with visual flair such as Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

Taxidermia is a word that doesn’t mean anything in English, nor in Hungarian, except to suggest the job of one of the film’s characters, Lajoska Balatony, who is a taxidermist. By the end of the film, the viewer will have realised that the title is actually the name of an artwork, the production of which brings the film to a very gruesome climax.

Basically, the film can be separated into three stories that centre on three different characters. Besides the terribly gaunt Lajoska, who is in the last story, we also see his father, Kálmán, a champion speed eater, and Kálmán’s harelipped father (Lajoska’s grandfather), Morosgoványi, who is a soldier by day and pleasures himself at night so that his hard member can either breathe fire or shoot its seed all the way to the stars.

While the first act is all about sex, and ends with a very ambiguous scene in which Morosgoványi seems to fantasise having sex with his lieutenant’s wife before waking up and finding that he has committed an act of bestiality with a dead pig, the second act is about food, and lots of it. Kálmán, who was somehow conceived during his father’s fantasy encounter, was in fact born of a woman but with a pig’s tail. His stepfather, the lieutenant, clips his tail shortly after birth, but then the story skips forward a few decades to a speed eating championship in Communist-era Hungary, where the event itself is as interesting (and as grotesque) as the post-match purging behind the curtains.

Don’t watch this film if you have an upset stomach.

The main interest of the film lies in its unconventional subject matter and the beauty with which such obscenity can be represented. But for all its interesting little incidents, the film lacks a narrative thread and, most importantly, fails to link the three main characters in any significant way. It is an easy comparison to make, but the taxidermist’s job of removing an animal’s hide, and using it without the original meat that it used to cover, mirrors the film’s hollow innards.

Taxidermia is fond of its extreme close-ups, but very often we cannot easily figure out what is going on because the camera refuses to reveal the bigger picture. However, the special visual sequences, such as a spinning bathtub at the beginning of the film, are dazzling and gorgeous to look at, until we realise that they serve to real purpose beyond the immediate jolt of visual stimulation. I also would have appreciated fewer shots of baby genitals.

The film would have benefited from a more tightly controlled screenplay, since there are numerous possibilities to explore, but none is really given the opportunity to develop, until the last act when the film seems to finally settle down and focus on the story and the characters at hand. I applaud this film for coming up with a character even more obese than Gilbert Grapes mother, and for that character (Kálmán) to deliver the most memorable line of the film: “I had a vomiting technique named after me!” – a source of great pride for the speaker. The instances of body horror are also enough to give Machete a run for its money. However, the film’s final scene, in which a sculpture that looks like a monstrous combination of the Venus de Milo and Michelangelo’s David is offered as a work of art, is dangerously close to pretension.

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

Hungary
3.5*

Directors: 
Béla Tarr
Ágnes Hranitzky
Screenwriter: 
László Krasznahorkai
Director of Photography:
Patrick de Ranter

Running time: 143 minutes

Original title: Werckmeister harmóniák

Béla Tarr is probably best known for his epic 1994 film, Sátántangó, which, like four of his other films, including Werckmeister Harmonies, is based on a text by writer László Krasznahorkai. He loves to shoot in black and white, mostly uses long takes, and typically his films are longer than two hours. In the case of Sátántangó, he produced one of the longest films on record and, to date, it is the longest feature film I have ever watched, clocking in at 450 minutes (seven and a half hours). The version I saw, released on DVD by Artificial Eye, was spread out over three discs.

In Werckmeister Harmonies the very long takes certainly contribute to an impression of solemnity, and so do the empty streets and other monochrome images. Anyone with some knowledge of film might like to yell “Bazin!”, but I am not at all convinced that Tarr’s use of long takes puts him in the camp with filmmakers who want to make films that are more authentic or that portray a world very close to ours.

We don’t know where the film is set. Production notes mention the Great Hungarian Plain. We don’t know in which historical period the film is set either, except that it is at some point during the 20th century. As I’ve noted already, the streets are all but deserted, although the town itself, based on the size of the market square in the town centre, ought to be quite big. Something sinister is afoot, and it is sinister precisely because we don’t really feel comfortable: We lack the knowledge of the where, the when, the why, of many things that are happening.

Our ambivalence is made even stronger by the black-and-white images, which are really more grey than black or white. As viewers, our inability to accurately identify certain things (for example, one often cannot determine whether it is fog or ash drifting past buildings and across squares) compels us to be even more attentive.

Visually, Tarr and co-director Ágnes Hranitzky use a very evident theme of “light and darkness” that pops us everywhere. In the opening moments, the main character, a 30-something man named János, demonstrates how a solar eclipse takes place by using the drunkards in his local pub. At one point, when there is a moment of silence that has us on the edge of our seats, the camera peds up ever so slightly to reveal the light source on the ceiling, before pedding down and continuing with the action. There are many other examples of the prominent use of light in the shots, and cinematographer Patrick de Ranter (although an experienced Steadicam operator, this is his only credit as director of photography) does an excellent job behind the camera.

The staging of the action and the fluidity of the camera are commendable, but I found the story very opaque: Critical moments were deliberately not shown, but more importantly, the “infinite sonorous silence” that János mentions in his opening monologue is rather simplistically applied to the mob of people, first in the town square, and then in the streets. I grant that the image of the mob advancing towards the camera in complete silence is interesting, but there is no suspense, because the shot lasts too long, and there is no realistic (or literal) reason why they would fail to speak. These characters lack a human dimension. The same goes for the film’s climax, which takes place in complete silence, in contrast (or perhaps as a counterpoint?) to the events of total destruction unfolding before our eyes.

What is the film actually about?

A stuffed whale, billed as “the great sensation of the century”; a Slovak prince who spouts a convoluted mess of words but whom we never see except for his shadow; and young János who somehow manages not to get swept up in the fray to see the enigmatic prince.

Werckmeister Harmonies is composed of a very limited chain of shots (the reviews all say 39; I counted 36) and everything ends in hushed anarchy while the camera elegantly glides between scenes of turbulence. The whale, by sheer virtue of its physical magnitude, makes a big impression and the moment when János visits the beast, underscored by the beautiful music of composer Mihály Vig, rates as one of the film’s absolute highlights.

But while there are moments of exquisite beauty, the film teeters on the brink of pretension throughout because of its stubborn inclusion of ludicrous shots such as a close-up of two characters walking down the street in complete silence, for two minutes; the silent crowds in the streets, walking for four minutes, mentioned above; or a technical monologue that relates to musical theorist Andreas Werckmeister but is wholly irrelevant to the plot. Perhaps there is some relevance to the film itself, but I could not discern this philosophical thread from my single viewing. There are other questions whose answers would certainly have provided the threadbare plot line with a measure of texture. We never learn why János is seen as an outsider whenever he appears in the square, nor can we understand why nobody else visits the whale (and no, given the chronology of the plot, these two events are not related).

Tarr and Hranitzky have produced a film that is thin yet elegant and surprisingly easy to watch. On the downside, its plot leaves more holes than necessary to produce the same kind of ambiguity that the directors are clearly aiming for. Main actor Lars Rudolph (voiced by Tamás Bolba) does a wonderful job as the out-of-place János, and even though the actor doesn’t speak Hungarian, he copes very well in both his monologue and dialogue scenes.

Fateless (2005)

Hungary
4.5*

Director: 
Lajos Koltai
Screenwriter:

Imre Kertész
Director of Photography: 

Gyula Pados

Running time: 140 minutes

Original title: Sorstalanság

If you have any sense of compassion, films about the Holocaust are very difficult to watch. And yet, the stories that they tell must be acknowledged and absorbed by a generation that could easily forget the events of more than 70 years ago.

At the time I am writing this review, I haven’t seen a Holocaust film, either fictional or documentary, since I sat down to watch Claude Lanzmann’s staggering multi-disc Shoah (1985) six years ago. Lanzmann and Alain Resnais, whose Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog) is considered to be an equally impressive achievement reminding us of the need to remember, both constructed films of the Holocaust as reflections of the past that still have striking resonance in the present.

Fateless‘s main character, who features in every single scene and is somehow involved in every single shot, is Gyuri “Gyurka” Köves (played by Marcell Nagy), a teenage boy with a mop of curly black hair, who lives in Budapest with his father and stepmother, part of a Jewish community in Budapest at the beginning of the Second World War. First, his father is sent to a labour camp, and then he himself is picked from a bus and sent to concentration camps, where he stays for the duration of the war, along with thousands of other Jewish Hungarians.

The young actor playing Gyurka is perfectly cast: Exactly on the verge of adulthood, he conveys innocence without childishness, and sometimes he seems to look straight at us, engaging our sympathy without soliciting it. His ideas are still evolving, and during a conversation about the essence of Jewishness, he wants to comfort a girl he has a crush on, who doesn’t understand why being a Jew makes her the object of so much hatred, but he doesn’t quite have the experience to do that yet. It is a touching moment, despite the evident political slant (fortunately, the only time the film hammers home the point) and one that obviously relates to the film as a whole.

Fateless is beautiful. It is the debut film of cinematographer Lajos Koltai and is clearly the work of someone with an eye for visual impact. The film’s colours are very muted: Mostly, the images resemble sepia photographs, and often the colour scheme is almost completely monochrome, with only hints of colour in the frame, especially the colour yellow, which of course is the colour of the infamous Star of David badges sewn onto the clothing of the Jewish population.

The film’s many different moments are not filled with the horrors one usually associates with Holocaust films but add up to a very human portrait of the people in the concentration camps and their desire to support each other. The fragmentary nature of the narrative, especially in the second half, is not always entirely effective, but the fragments themselves are like small gems in the mud of the Second World War.

A few scenes stand out for the emotion they are likely to evoke and very often the soundtrack of Ennio Morricone (one of the best he has ever scored, with the always incredible Lisa Gerrard adding her voice to some very emotive pieces) plays a significant role. At one point, the prisoners are asked to entertain their fellow inmates, and they sing a song whose relevance to their plight is difficult to miss:

What does a girl dream on a moonlit night?
That her prince will come on a steed of pure white

It’s a dream so sweet, but soon she must wake
And princes are scarce, so it’s all a mistake

Fateless ends on a very different note from most of these kinds of films and may rub some people the wrong way, but the point that the film makes illuminates the human ability to find light in the darkness and to hold on to the goodness in some people and use it as a shelter against the dreadful acts of others.

The Witness (1969)

Hungary
4*

Director:
Péter Bacsó
Screenwriters: 
Péter Bacsó
János Újhegyić
Director of Photography:
János Zsombolyai

Running time: 103 minutes

Original title: A tanú

József Pelikán, by his own admission, is “ideologically ill-defined”, in spite of his affiliation with the Communist Party; he is a continuous victim of circumstance. All he really cares about is the dyke next to his house, where he does his best to keep the gophers from burrowing and destroying this wall that protects him and his family against the slowly rising level of water. And rise it does, in the end providing the inevitable tragedy in this tragicomedy.

In one of the film’s opening scenes (incidentally, one of the only instances when Pelikán deliberately defies the law of the land), he slaughters a pig in the basement while his children, standing on the trapdoor above, sing at the top of their lungs. Such an activity – the killing, not the singing – is illegal under law, and soon enough, by way of more misunderstandings, Pelikán is arrested and thrown in jail.

Very quickly, the film’s structure becomes a chain of predictable causality: He is thrown in jail, let out almost immediately, given a job by a Party senior, he fails to respect someone high up and is thrown in jail again. But the situations themselves are comedic gems. Pelikán is appointed as director of a swimming pool, director of an amusement park and director of an orange research institute but fails to impress.

However, the Orange Research Institute provides one of the funniest banners in the film, visible during a ceremony supposed to celebrate the success of the Hungarian Orange: “Forward with the Hungarian Orange!”

This film is one of those Communist-era comedies that clearly poke fun at the regime and still astound by virtue of having been made in such a political climate in the first place. In particular, I’m thinking of a Polish film called Miś, by Stanisław Bareja. The Witness is less overtly laughable, but there is a lot to laugh at, and this laughter is often derived from the hilarious absurdity of the main character’s ignorance of and disregard for the power structures.

A Witness is a grand farce, and the one character’s recurring reminder that “life is not a whipped-cream cake” might not be as poetic or optimistic as Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, but it makes clear what the characters should not be expecting.

The use of communist slogans in the film is striking and comical and can still be easily comprehended by a contemporary audience. Also, there is no difficulty in understanding the subtext of the episode about the Hungarian oranges. The last part of the story is handled well and contains one or two interesting surprises, which the episodic nature of the film up to that point had sought to conceal.